I’m treating myself to a hat making course. Now, what’s in my pile of books that would go with that? Don’t know about you, but I can only think of one hatter in literature – the Hatter from Alice in Wonderland – so into my suitcase goes The Annotated Alice.
I’m staying in a little village outside Evesham, in Worcestershire. There’s not a lot here apart from a church, a school, a shop, and the pub I’m staying in. It’s an old inn, and the stables have been converted into bedrooms, with an equine theme – prints, plates, brass – and the bathroom has what looks like a stable door. As is so often the case with the places I visit, mobile phone reception is pretty patchy, but it’s a good excuse for a wander along the edges of fields, with occasional pauses while I wave my phone around hopefully.
The millinery school is like a little haberdashery version of Aladdin’s cave – threads, ribbons, feathers, buckles, scraps of silk. And there are shelves full of hat moulds – some modern polystyrene, some antique wood – one which looks a lot like the Hatter’s hat. There’s also a cat, which (appropriately enough) keeps disappearing.
Over the next three days I learn how to measure and cut silk, iron on stiffener, then block it (stretch it over the mould, then push in blocking pins to hold it in place) and put it in a heated cabinet to dry.
The straw hat is made from a cone of parasisal, which has to be soaked before being blocked (slippery, and a lot harder to get the pins through), cut to size, and then brushed with an incredibly stinky stiffener before that too goes into the drying cabinet.
Of course once they’re dry, you have to try to get the pins out. And I thought getting the things in was difficult…
I learn how to sew stab stitch, wire stitch, and back stitch (the neatest the tutor has ever seen). I wrestle with artificial flowers, and try to slide a buckle on without distorting my neat box pleat.
The straw hat is finally dry, so the tutor shows me how to bend a straw off-cut into a bow, add a little black lace motif, and position a little cockade of feathers at a suitably jaunty angle.
The last afternoon is spent cutting and sewing linings to the hats, then adding pretty lace ribbon to hide the join. I am now the proud owner of four beautiful little pillbox hats.
By day I make hats – by night, I’m exploring The Annotated Alice, by Martin Gardner.
It’s the definitive edition, in hardback – and the paper is creamy and smooth. It has the full text of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1872) and the combined notes from Gardner’s previous two editions of The Annotated Alice. There are lengthy notes at the side of page – the text is smaller than the story text, but still big enough to read easily – which is just as well, as there are a lot of them Very few pages are without some comments shedding more light on the stories, and the life of Lewis Carroll.
Alice is a classic children’s story, which I imagine would be pretty impenetrable to most modern children of Alice’s age – even more so if they haven’t been brought up in England.
Strangely, I never read Alice as a child, although we had a book of the poems from the stories, with the Tenniel illustrations (anyone know the name of it? Hardback, blue square, 70s?) so Jabberwocky was the first poem I knew by heart.
I suspect most people are familiar with Alice from seeing one of the film/television versions, which is not ideal. I know, I know – people always whinge that the book was better – but most movies of Alice are a mixture of episodes from both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, she falls down a rabbit hole and meets a variety of strange characters, including playing cards.
Through the Looking Glass is more structured – she goes through a mirror and becomes a pawn in a game of chess (there’s even an illustration and a list of the moves in the introduction).
You can’t just take chunks of two different stories, with different plots and characters, squash them together and expect it to work – no wonder the recent Tim Burton adaptation was a confused mess. Just one example – the Red Queen should have been called the Queen of Hearts. There is a Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, but she helps Alice, and doesn’t want to have anyone’s head cut off.
(And it’s not really clear if the two stories are happening in the same place. Apart from Alice, the only characters to appear in both books are the Hatter and the Hare – but they don’t recognise Alice, or she them. In Through the Looking Glass they are called Hatta and Haigha, and it’s only the illustration that shows they are the same characters.)
One of my pet hates is when I see something really imaginative, and someone makes a comment about the creator being on drugs. It annoys me to see creativity dismissed – although there are some things where you do wonder, and I can understand why they might say that about Alice. But this edition shows you that a lot of the seemingly whacky rhymes are in fact parodies of popular songs of the time, which Victorian readers would have recognised, though we do not.
The wonderful Jabberwocky was completely original and here there are examples of it in French and German (I don’t envy the translators that job).
There are explanations of lots of in-jokes, some best appreciated by lovers of mathematics, some which would have been known to local people, and some just for Alice and her family. I can’t begin to list all the interesting little nuggets of information.
One of my favourites is the theory that Cheshire cheese used to be moulded in shape of a smiling cat – you would start cutting it at the tail, so eventually only the smile would be left, which could be the origin of the Cheshire Cat.
I also like “Jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today” – said by the White Queen, it’s used as a mnemonic by Latin teachers. In Latin, now is ‘iam’ (jam) in the past and future tense (yesterday and tomorrow), but in the present tense (today) it’s ‘nunc’.
Reading The Annotated Alice is like reading a whole new book. It adds another dimension to a classic, making it clear that it’s skilful piece of satire, not simply nonsense for children.
It’s an impressive piece of research and it’s hard to think of many other stories originally intended for children which have inspired this much adult interest.
If you’ve been confused by Alice – read this book. If you already love Alice – buy this book.